By Zandy Dudiak, Communications coordinator
Since December 2020, Pittsburgh Mercy has been providing contact tracing as another way to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Allegheny Health Department (ACHD), with support from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, contracted with Pittsburgh Mercy to expand its COVID-19 response efforts around community outreach, communications, and contact tracing.
“We’re providing the administrative support,” explains Mission Director Bill Connolly, who is overseeing the program. “It’s definitely showed that this organization can meet any need or face any challenge put in front of it.”
Lewis Thompson was the first contact tracer on board in early December, followed later in the month by Maggie Laird and then Linda Von Bloch, who had previously worked as a physician assistant at Pittsburgh Mercy Family Health Center (PMFHC).
Each contact tracer is also responsible for serving as a surge capacity worker for the ACHD to conduct contact tracing. Though they all work as contact tracers, their duties vary.
What they do
Lewis and Maggie log in and take calls regarding the tests, Bill says. About 50 percent of their efforts are serving as contact tracers for leads provided by the county. When anyone gets a COVID test at PMFHC or at one of our residential sites, the contact tracers track and input the results.
If a test comes back positive, they communicate those results to the appropriate members of leadership so they can institute COVID-19 protocols for our colleagues.
“A lot of the work is behind the scenes,” Bill says, including reporting data and assisting at Pittsburgh Mercy’s vaccination clinics, where some 4,800 vaccines have been administered since last December. “Each consent form needs verified and entered into the state database. Lewis and Maggie enter all those into the state system.”
Maggie says the most interesting part of her job is learning about the many different programs and individuals that make up Pittsburgh Mercy.
“It’s very exciting to be a part of data entry for Pittsburgh Mercy’s vaccine clinics,” she says. “It’s great to see more people access vaccines.”
No resistance to contact tracing found now
A survey done in July 2020 by Pew Research Center found that 41% of those who were asked about their views on speaking with a public health official who might contact them about the coronavirus outbreak via phone or text said they would be “not at all” or be “not too likely to do so.” And 40 percent of those who were asked about speaking with a public official who showed up at their residence to talk about COVID-19 said the same thing. Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case for Pittsburgh Mercy’s contact tracers.
“I haven’t encountered any resistance when contact tracing either for Pittsburgh Mercy or Allegheny County Health Department,” Maggie shares. “I started in December, and it seemed like by that time, many people understood what quarantining meant and how to best protect their and others’ health.”
Coming back to help during pandemic
When Linda joined the team in late December, she began coronavirus testing at the Central Recovery Center, Diversion and Acute Stabilization programs, homeless shelters and also administering the tests for colleagues, when needed. Because of her medical background as a physician assistant, Linda is also able to administer vaccines at the clinics.
“I retired as a medical provider at PMFHC in July 2020 but remained in touch with Dr. (Jack Todd) Wahrenberger,” Linda says. “Retirement was rolling along but, like most folks, I grew increasingly distressed with the staggering number of COVID infections and deaths in Allegheny County and beyond.”
She texted Dr. Wahrenberger, Pittsburgh Mercy chief medical officer, a few weeks before Christmas and asked if there was “something … anything” she could do to help out.
“To make matters worse, several staff at the health center had become ill with COVID and I sensed how sad and overwhelmed my former colleagues were,” Linda continues. “I was glad to accept the contact tracer position.”
As a contact tracer, Linda’s role is a little different than the work performed by Lewis and Maggie.
“I have been COVID testing at the men’s and women’s emergency shelters each week for the past few months. Likewise, I’ve been pinch-hitting as a vaccinator when needed. It’s been great and my need to ‘help out’ in some small way has been met. There will be plenty of time for retirement when this pandemic is over!”
Providing some relief for other colleagues
Hiring the contact tracer team provided much-needed relief for Dr. Wahrenberger and Pittsburgh Mercy President and CEO Tony Beltran, who had been out in the field doing testing themselves, as well as their other duties, since the pandemic began. Marisol Valentin, then-compliance, privacy, and risk officer, who is now executive director of McAuley Ministries, found herself doing data tracking.
“When COVID happened, everyone’s jobs changed,” said Bill. “The contact tracers eliminated a lot of that burden. Everyone still does a little bit of both but we don’t have to do as much, thanks to Lewis, Maggie, and Linda.”
The contact tracing program is funded through June 30, 2021, although the county has indicated it might be extended through the end of the year.